Day 12: Literary and Visual Artists Collaborate to Make Music

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Topiary is a collaboration of between visual and literary artists April White & Matthew Hollett. Hollett is in the spotlight these days as Newfoundland Quarterly’s non-fiction Fellow, where he is creating new works of creative non-fiction that engage with material from the magazine’s exhaustive archives.

You might know April White from her visual artwork, but listen to that voice: her pictures are worth a thousand words (of praise) and so too is her voice. This is actually April’s second RPM. If you like what you hear, she did one last year as Witches Kiss. And now she’s in a band called Cunny on a Broomstick.

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So what do two artists make music about? “We wrote 10 folky songs about walking trails, cave paintings, icebergs as footwear, berry nomenclature, a telepathic whale, snails, spanworms, and slugs,” Hollett says.

“Berries in Bauline” is particularly lyrically stellar, for granting better names to local berries, with lines like, “or christmaslightberries, cause once one goes bad, they all do” and “minimumwageberries when I only get eight bucks a gallon.”

Such clever and unique lyrics adds something even more original to the album’s already fresh spin on bareboned folk songs. Topiary is bound to outlive the March novelty of 130 new albums. Here’s a few lines from “Whale Heart,” a song that “tells a story about a heart the size of a small car.”

“Oh, if my heart was the size of a small car,
we could drive around blasting the beat of it,
blood pumping as we race down the boulevard.”

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To shake things up, the album takes an electronic departure by track 9’s aptly titled “Beep Boop Beep.” Here’s how the collaboration worked, according to Hollett. “I’m a writer, not a musician, although I sang a bit and learned a little ukelele along the way. I mostly wrote lyrics. April put them to music, sang, and played ukelele, banjo, and a little guitar.”

Hollett says “we had tons of help from talented friends,” including Michael Venart (who recorded 8 songs and added cello, piano and other instruments), Jeff Foran (who recorded 2 songs), Stephan Walke (acoustic guitar), Virginia Mitford (backup vocals), Jason Wells (vocals and synth), Mike Connolly (electric guitar), and Marlene Creates (who drummed on two songs).

“I mostly write poems and nonfiction, so I’d never tried writing songs before. I had a lot of fun playing with rhyme, and many of the songs contain puns and wordplay. ‘Berries in Bauline’ is a good example – it’s a poem that I rewrote as a song, and was inspired by the different names that people have for berries, and by my great-aunt telling me about a kind of berry that she only ever found in one place.

Hollett’s says a lot of the songs are about places and people’s connection to landscape, his favourite being the opener, “North Head Trail,” which is about his favourite place in the city: the hiking trail that goes from the end of The Battery up to Signal Hill.

“‘Cave Painting,'” he says “is about making a cave painting in someone’s unfinished basement hoping that it might survive an apocalypse. ‘Signatures’ is about feeling a little stuck in your hometown, and ‘Snails’ is an imaginary love letter from one snail to another. April wrote the words for ‘All Things Hairy,’ about looking closely at things in a sunny backyard.”

So yeah, no exaggeration, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. Two great minds produce something better than one can alone, no surprises there. The surprise is the constant reminder that artists in Newfoundland successfully wear so many hats and refuse to be bound in by a single artistic discipline.

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Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

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